Friday, 25 January 2008

Potemkin Village

Yesterday I found out the meaning of Potemkin Village. It stems from a Russian minister (Potemkin) who had fake villages built along the banks of the Dnieper River to impress the Empress Catherine II during her visit to the area. The aim was to create the impression that the area was developed and civilised and therefore improve the standing and political power of Potemkin. Here's an article from Wikipedia:

Potemkin Village is now used to describe a false or hollow construct - basically smoke and mirrors - normally for political gain.

I'd never heard this saying until I saw Cesky Sen yesterday. The filmakers created an ad campaign around Prague announcing a new supermarket with amazingly cheap stuff. They went the whole nine yards: tv ads, a song, trams painted with the logo, radio, billboards, and even those supermarket flyers that come through the door with offers on, all totally believable and aimed at getting the punters along to the grand opening. On the day there were about 2,000 people (many of them elderly) waiting to get in. Many had seen the bargains and had come especially for something special, they were really exited.

The ribbon was cut and the 2,000 started to make their way across the field to the store-front. When they got there, they discovered it was nothing but a facade pinned to scaffolding. Behind the scaffold was nothing but meadow.

It was an entertaining film but it left me with a couple of questions.

Firstly, what does it prove? In real terms it showed that if you advertise that a new supermarket is opening with bargains for all, people will come to the opening. Ok. Wouldn't it be a bit more weird if nobody showed up? Or just, like, one old man. Maybe with a dog. So the fact that people will come to an advertised event isn't earth shattering. Was the point to show that advertising is false? I'm not sure that the film acheives that either. In this case the advertising was false but it was a scenario contrived by the filmakers - how does it show that advertising is false? If most people get a leaflet through the door and go to the supermarket to claim their bargain - they get it. If not they can sue for false advertising. I hate commercialism. I hate the way that advertising uses people's fears to make them think that they absolutely have to have a certain product (Marilyn Manson in Michael Moores Bowling For Columbine comes up with the most rational description of this I think I've ever seen). I hate the way that supermarkets use loss leaders and multibuy promotions to sucker people into buying crap they don't need BUT does the concept of this film make any of these points? It shows that people can be suckered by a bargain but that is not news. Is the point to see the reaction of the people who went to the opening? I have to admit I really enjoyed folks reactions. I'm not bang into racial stereotypes but the reaction of all the people who said:
"Oh well, it's a nice day and at least we're getting some fresh air", makes me think that if there is a national characturistic of Czechs, it is optimism - not to shabby.

In terms of the concept, whereas someone like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock will research real examples of consumerism, the example in this film was contrived by the filmakers and as such the film itself is a Potemkin Village.

My second question was: Is this ethical? I think the best documentary film can stand on its own two feet as social research. Nick Broomfield, for example, employs Gonzo journalism to get so close to his subjects that they become more and more relaxed in his presence and reveal more about their lives than they otherwise would. This sort of ethnographic technique is a kosha social research method. The filmakers in Cesky Sen don't get close to their subjects, they use advertising to create a mass reaction which, while it tells us how people react to advertising, it doesn't really tell us why. What disturbed me about the concept of this film was the lack of informed consent. Without the people who turned up to the opening there would not have been a film but these people did not know what they were taking part in. It's like the argument against unobtrusive observation or mystery shoppers, yes, it's really revealing but, at the end of the day, it's treating people like lab rats.

Despite my criticisms it's a really entertaining film. I laughed but also felt a bit guilty at watching a really old lady with a walking stick stagger out into the field with grim determination even after people were coming back saying it was just scaffolding. This film made me think (although I'm not sure it made me think about the things that the filmakers intended) and getting me to think is not an easy task, so top marks for that...

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